Two novels

I thought I’d post the reviews I wrote of two recent novels for the September issue of our local news magazine, the Harbour Spiel.

For September, 2012

I love books strongly rooted in place, where the writer is so generous with specific detail that you can visualize the land, the vistas, the houses, the weather. And I love a good mystery novel, one which places its characters in interesting situations and lets the reader get to know them slowly by adding a dramatic or unexpected element – a theft, a kidnapping, or a murder.

Or maybe a bank heist in a small fishing village on the Sunshine Coast where the culprits get away and later a man shows up badly beaten, having lost both his wife and his memory. That’s part of the plot of David Lee’s Commander Zero (Tightrope Books, 2012) and if you’re looking for a lively and intriguing read for the end of summer, this is your book.

Of course it helps that so much in it is recognizable. The fish plant, the local hardware, the markets, the credit union where the three robbers in black ski masks stuff cash into duffle bags, and then head north on the highway…Even the Harbour Spiel makes an appearance.

David Lee lived in the Harbour for some years, raising a family and working at various businesses; he was a fixture on the music scene, playing double bass for different ensembles and helping with the jazz festival. He wrote several books, one of them the very popular Chainsaws: A History (Harbour Publishing, 2006).

Though we can all identify geographical markers in this novel as well as retail businesses and industries; and though we can smile as we read about the possibility of grow operations on Mount Hallowell or romances forming after a night at the Legion, Commander Zero is more than a roman-à-clef. The main character, Joseph Windebank, has survived two accidents and suffers severe memory loss as a result. His relationships with his sister Sandy (“that angry woman”), with Rose who manages the fish plant, with the guys he works with, including Walter who owns a boat Joey worked on until he leaped overboard in some kind of panic, are all slightly mysterious. Is he really as innocent as he seems, packing prawns and returning to his trailer each night?

The writing is very clear and direct. Listen to the opening paragraph: “Between the mountains are canyons filled with salt water, and what I remember first is fishing in that water. The mountains are like the shoulders of women. The women are reaching under the water. They are searching for something there.”

Like them, we’ll search those drowned canyons and what comes up will surprise us.


Penticton writer Barbara Lambert’s new novel, The Whirling Girl (Cormorant, 2012), is set among the Etruscan ruins near Cortona, an Italian landscape she lovingly describes and notates like music.

In a meadow filled with wild flowers and curious mounds, there is an ancient house that botanical artist Clare Livingston is both delighted and dismayed to learn that she has inherited from her estranged uncle. This gift is about forgiveness – but to whom, and for what?

Travelling from her Vancouver home to Tuscany to deal with the legal complexities of her inheritance, Clare is also hoping to build on her recent success as a chronicler of endangered plants. She journeyed to the Amazon basin to paint its rare flora and even found a new species, Circaea Livingston Philippiana, named to honour her ancestor. Or did she?  Clare is nothing if not ingenuous. And she is not above telling a lie, whether it’s about the provenance of her western belt buckle or the truth of her Amazonian expedition.

Clare becomes entangled in turf wars between archaeologists with different agendas and Lambert plunges the reader into the world of tombaroli or tomb robbers, of the fascinating business of trying to reconstruct mythical gardens through pollen analysis and the faintest of traces, and the difficult excavations of desire and memory. Who is on Clare’s side? And are snakes in the meadow the only danger? In this fast-paced novel, everything shifts and changes as swiftly as the light over the ruined walls, the shadows of umbrella pines leaving their own mysterious clues.

Objects take on huge significance. The tiny blue bead that emerges in a dig at Poggio Selvaggio, for example: the story it tells of imported objects arriving in Etruria from the Middle East, or farther, is so intriguing. Or the mirrors, found in tombs, which were decorated with graphic legends and were passed from woman to woman the way a romantic novel would make the rounds in contemporary society.

I loved the careful attention to plants and terrain in this book and the rich descriptions of artistic process, how the layers of colour applied to paper tease out the shimmer of a poppy or the fragile petals of rock rose.

Near the beginning of the novel, Clare explores her new property. “The leaves ruffled silver. It felt like a memory of a different, parallel life, wandering among these trees. The sun streamed down with the sweet weight of honey. She found a grassy hollow and lay back, studying the quality of the light. Painting here would require a different palette…” And like Clare, the reader is eager to see what this palette might be.

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